We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Corporate social responsibility – is it socialism by the back door?

“When I hear businessmen speak eloquently about the `social responsibilities of business in a free-enterprise system,’ I am reminded of the wonderful line about the Frenchman who discovered at the age of 70 that he had been speaking prose all his life. The businessmen believe that they are defending free enterprise when they declaim that business is not concerned `merely’ with profit but also with promoting desirable `social’ ends; that business has a “social conscience” and takes seriously its responsibilities for providing employment, eliminating discrimination, avoiding pollution and whatever else may be the catchwords of the contemporary crop of reformers. In fact they are–or would be if they or anyone else took them seriously – preaching pure and unadulterated socialism. Businessmen who talk this way are unwitting puppets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades.”

Milton Friedman

If you want to wind up a certain kind of activist in the realms of modern investment, one of the quickest ways to get their pulse rate up is to quote the late Chicago economist above about what he thought was the sole responsibility of business owners. He stated that this was to maximise shareholder value. Period. To do anything else is tantamount to an act of theft:

“In a free-enterprise, private-property system, a corporate executive is an employee of the owners of the business. He has direct responsibility to his employers. That responsibility is to conduct the business in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while conforming to their basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom. Of course, in some cases his employers may have a different objective. A group of persons might establish a corporation for an eleemosynary purpose – for example, a hospital or a school. The manager of such a corporation will not have money profit as his objectives but the rendering of certain services.”

This seems fair enough to me and stated with Friedman’s admirable clarity. The key is that the purpose of the firm is set by the folk who created it and those who own it. If it meets customers’ needs it will thrive, and if it doesn’t, it goes out of business. If you and I, dear reader, found a business to sell chocolate ice cream, at what point do we suddenly become “responsible” in some sense to “society” or “the environment” or “God” in how we run things unless we have expressly chosen to make those considerations part of our business mission?

It is crucial to be clear on this point. If a group of individuals band together to create a corporation that expressly states that it shall distribute 30 per cent of profits to a specific charity/cause, or that it will source its supplies from a particular group on ethical grounds, or hire as equal a balance of men and women as possible, regardless of other considerations, then anyone who becomes, say, a shareholder in that business cannot complain if things go wrong. And in fact there are more and more cases of firms that go out of their way to brandish their ethical principles, with varying levels of credibility or cant. Also it turns out that firms which are run by honest people, publish transparent accounts and don’t treat staff like crap tend, according to some metrics, to outperform their peers over the long term (see a study claiming this here). As Adam Smith might have noted, if people pursue their rational self-interest it tends to be the case that dealing with decent, honest people tends to work out better than dealing with shysters.

In my present working life I am bombarded with press releases and material from investment firms talking about the wonders of environmental, social and governance-related (ESG) investing, and also what is called “impact” investing (putting money to work to achieve a specific result, both financial and non-financial). To the extent that fund managers use their market muscle to achieve these goals in a free market rather than bring in the State to do their bidding, that’s all fine by me. After all, why should not, say, a libertarian fund management firm be able to state that it will refuse to invest in any business that knowingly produces services/products that threaten privacy and expand the reach of the state, such as firms that act as contractors to certain governments? (How about Classical Liberal Wealth Management Inc?) In other words, in this view the purpose of a firm or other legal entity is to enable the wishes of its creators to be brought about, whether making a profit, advancing world peace, spreading the ideas of Ludwig von Mises or whatever.

There will be investment funds that will want to focus on holding stakes in firms, be they listed, or unquoted, that focus 100 per cent on becoming more valuable and profitable no matter what else it does, because those investment funds’ clients expect and hope to fund a decent retirement, for example. In an ageing population, beset by growing strains on public finances, it is going to be difficult sometimes to square some of the supposed high-minded desires of corporate social responsibility activists with the desires of millions to have something to live on in old age. The point is that balancing those things must ultimately be the investors’ decision, not that of a government.

The issue becomes more problematic when government steps in. Firms that claim CSR is good for the shareholder in the long run may simply be rationalising what they have to do anyway by force of law. Investor pressure to save the earth as well as make money may be misguided in some ways, but at least it is not coercion. But things take a different turn when the state intrudes. An article here by Quinn Connelly makes this point well:

“Empirically speaking, the market has moved against Friedman’s philosophy. The largest firms in America and Britain spend more than $15 billion a year on CSR, and new research suggests this spending may create monetary value for companies. As The Economist concludes, “even if you accept Friedman’s premise and regard CSR policies as a waste of shareholders’ money, things may not be absolutely clear-cut.” Indeed, they may not be, but not for the aforementioned reasons. In the current environment, it may be rational for companies to adopt CSR policies in order to contend with regulatory and competitive pressure; however, this says little about the inherent value of the policies themselves, or the principles behind them. In fact, a cynic might point to the increase in CSR spending as an indicator of reverse regulatory capture, or merely as an exercise in public relations.”

To sum up, ideas such as ESG investing or corporate social responsibility can in some ways sit alongside an entirely free market view of the world, but I am wary. In a recent phone call, one advocate of these ideas talked about how “we are in an era of late-stage capitalism”. I pointed out to this person that such a term has been used as long as capitalism has been a word. The phone call did not go well.

Samizdata quote of the day

The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.

– Frederick Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism

Book Review: Capitalism In America by Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge

Capitalism in America: A History. By Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge.

I recently read this book, published a few months ago, and it is written by a senior journalist who is political editor of the Economist, and former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. Given their respective occupations, I had a rough idea of their broad ideology (a general predisposition towards free markets, private property and limited government) and on the whole I enjoyed reading this book a great deal.

Their core thesis is that America has been as successful as it has been because it allows a great deal of “creative destruction” – new technologies and business models disrupt and replace older ones, causing pain for specific groups but big benefits for the wider population over time. America is so big, and people have traditionally been so willing to move around to find work, that the “creative” side wins over the “destructive”. They observe the back-and-forth process of how there have been periods of intense growth and upward progress, such as the post-Civil War boom, the rise of the great business tycoons such as the Rockefellers, then the push-back of anti-trust and the Progressive Era, William Jennings Bryan and his “cross of gold” hysteria; the Roaring 20s, then the Great Depression, followed by WW2 and the post-war boom; the troubles of the late 60s, then 70s; the Reagan era, supply side tax cuts and the dotcom boom; and finally, the 2008 crash and the angst over declining productivity and worries about skyrocketing debt.

The most impressive thing about this book in my view is the way an enormous amount of information, some of it arcane, is conveyed into a fast-paced narrative. This book is written very well and packed with anecdotes and even a bit of sly humour. There are some standouts: the book gives a marvelous account of the agricultural technologies and innovations that turned the Great Plains into the breadbasket of the world; its understanding of business models and mass production techniques is first class. It largely absolves the likes of Rockefeller, Carnegie and the rest of the “robber baron” tag and suggests that much anti-trust doctrine is bunk. Later, in discussing the present controversies over Facebook and other “Big Techs”, it is similarly sceptical about whether state bust-ups of such entities is a good idea.

The book points out how, by the late 19th Century, the US government was so small relative to today’s that the largest department of the Federal government was the Post Office. It generally praises the idea of the Gold Standard – Wooldridge and Greenspan are pretty rough on Bryan and others who think that printing money is a solution to economic problems. They are also pretty harsh on F D Roosevelt, pointing out that during the 1930s, unemployment averaged in the double-digit percentages, and that much of the New Deal was, on its stated terms, a failure. They give Roosevelt stick for his vindictive acts and foolish interventionism – they realise that his genius, if we can use that word, was inventing a myth about himself and in telling people that he was going to make sure everything was OK.

Needless to say, the narrative gets more awkward when it covers the period when Greenspan, a man who in his youth was an acolyte of Ayn Rand and an advocate of gold-backed money, became Fed chairman. The book argues (page 385) that critics cannot prove that the 2008 financial crisis can be blamed on loose monetary policy. Well, how jolly convenient! They say that the Fed’s ability to set interest rates, and influence borrowing costs for those with mortgages, etc, was largely restricted by the global “savings glut”. (I will come to this a bit later.) To a great extent, they blame the 2008 disaster on government-subsidised/supported sub-prime mortgages, excess confidence by bankers in risk models and the sheer complexity of financial products, such as in the derivatives markets. All these criticisms of the financial system prior to the collapse of Lehman Bros. in September 2008 look valid but there is also a problem.

A problem to overcome, the authors say, is how rising entitlement spending (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) has “crowded out” private savings and that, over a period of time, savings as a share of total GDP has declined. Coupled with this, and with rising regulation (which they rightly attack) has been less overall capital investment, leading to lower productivity growth. When people talk about “stagnant” wages, it is sub-par productivity that is largely to blame.

Okay, so low savings are a problem. If it is true that insufficient private sector savings is a problem to be fixed, how come the “glut” of savings in the years leading up to 2008 was a problem? If Chinese/other savers were pouring genuine savings (not central bank confetti) into the West, and investing in real capital, then why would this be an issue (other than a dislike of the origins of the savings)? When do we know that there is a “glut” of savings if, in other parts of the narrative, Greenspan/Wooldridge say there are insufficient savings because of a state “crowding out” effect? Of course, had Fed interest rates been higher than they were, yield-hungry Chinese savers might have put even money into the US, but then again it might have chilled the housing market enough to halt some of the damage.

Such points aside, Capitalism In America is a good study of some of the big shifts in the US economy since the Republic was born.

Samizdata quote of the day

In his 1968 book The Population Bomb, biologist Paul Ehrlich from Stanford University wrote that “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” That year, food supply in 34 out of 152 countries surveyed amounted to less than 2,000 calories per person per day. That was true of only 2 out of 173 countries surveyed in 2013. Today famines have all but disappeared outside of war zones.

Marian Tupy

What do people think of Open Rights Group?

The White Paper expresses a clear desire for tech companies to “design in safety”. As the process of consultation now begins, we call on DCMS to “design in fundamental rights”. Freedom of expression is itself a framework, and must not be lightly glossed over. We welcome the opportunity to engage with DCMS further on this topic: before policy ideas become entrenched, the government should consider deeply whether these will truly achieve outcomes that are good for everyone.

– remarks by Jim Killock and Amy Shepherd on the ORG site.

Seems to me that ORG thinks the ‘Online Harms Strategy’ just needs to be written better rather than the very notion of the government poking its nose into the internet is an abomination that needs to die in a fire. I have not followed the ORG closely, so am I being unfairly critical? Perhaps I am just allergic to the incredibly dangerous ‘positive rights’ language I see in some ORG articles. Opinions?

The fall of the Temple of Reason

Terrible news from Paris of the fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral. As I write, I understand that not all is lost of this masterpiece. The collapsed spire was a 19th Century addition, but the damage must be immense.

When I was last in Paris, over a decade ago, I recall looking at Notre-Dame and shuddering as I thought of it as ‘destroyed’ (not that I believe that there are ‘holy’ places), as, during the French Revolution, it was closed as a cathedral and was declared a Temple of Reason. When egalitarians appeal to reason, you know heads will roll.

There followed years of neglect, before, AIUI, in 1905, the French State (which had assumed ownership), effectively provided the cathedral to the Catholic Church as a permanent ‘tenant’. The cause of the fire may well be nothing more sinister than incompetence, perhaps we will never know. I would like to think that commercial aviation levels of caution would go into fire precautions in such a building, (perhaps they did) which, whatever your view of the use or purpose of it, is surely one of the great buildings on Earth. However, the neglect under State ownership has continued, and yesterday’s cathedral was a revived corpse of the pre-Revolutionary building.

It is pretty shameful that neither Hitler nor the Kaiser managed to do as much damage to Notre Dame as the fire. It had survived them, and rioting Hugenots. In WW2, it was relatively unscathed. Some lost mediaeval glass was, I understand, replaced by abstract crap in the post-War period, so the scoundrels were already circling.

Perhaps the fire is a Randian moment, wasn’t there a train crash in a tunnel for which ‘no one is responsible’? Is the burning down of a ‘temple of reason’ an allegory for France after its great economists are all-but forgotten?

Does it matter if, in rebuilding Notre-Dame, stone that is geologically ancient is replaced by other just as ancient stone, carved a few mere centuries later? Should, as with the Campanile in Venice, the order be: ‘Com’era, Dov’era.‘. ‘How it was, where it was.‘?

Or will something more ‘inclusive’ replace it or be grated on to it?

The King of Spain is belatedly singeing many a landlord’s beard…

Mr Ed: This post is made on behalf of Paul Marks, the Sage of Kettering, as he appears to have some issues with posting. I have put my pennyworth in.

Centuries ago the Kings of Spain forbad landlords to remove tenants at the end of their tenancy contract (at least in Castile) – the Kings wanted to be seen as the “friends of the poor”. This was the true start of the decline of Castile and it spread to Latin America – where landlords just became interested in collecting-the-rent rather than improving their estates (as it was not lawful for them to remove tenants). Soon rents became “customary” – fixed under the “just price” doctrine, close kin of the “fair wage” doctrine.

Spain and Latin America lagged behind the Common Law world not because Spanish is somehow an inferior language to English – but because Spanish law became inferior to the Common Law which was based upon Freedom-of-Contract not “Social Justice” with its “just price”, “fair wage” and “security of tenure” (regardless of contract). The government of British Prime Minister Theresa May now seeks to copy the “Spanish Practices” of centuries ago – by making contracts meaningless. For example, if a tenant can not be removed after the term of their contract (their tenancy) is over then only a fool would let out a property in the first place. What is intended to “reduce homelessness” will end up increasing it.

Mr Ed: This piece on Conservativehome sets out the aptly-named Secretary of State’s view, Mr Brokenshire, he is indeed going to scour the Shires, and the towns and cities too. Someone said rent control was the second-surest way to destroy a city after carpet bombing.

James Brokenshire: Why we have decided to abolish no fault evictions

The legal position (England and, I think, Wales but it may be devolved) is not set out very well in the piece, so the explanation on the government’s website is here. Basically, the legal mechanism is a Section 21 notice, whereby a property owner can evict a tenant after a 6-month tenancy has ended, i.e. it has run its minimum term, or when it is of indefinite duration. This is to be abolished, leaving in place the much less effective Section 8 Notice, whereby tenants can play cat-and-mouse by not paying rent, then paying arrears and stopping an eviction, amongst other things.

Bastiat’s ‘What is seen and what is not seen’ might seem to be the issue here, but I fear that there are those who will not ‘see’ when it does not suit them, and unlike Nelson, it is from cowardice and calculation.

Of course, if the Sage is right, Mrs May is making England that little bit more like Venezuela, singeing Mr Corbyn’s beard and stealing his clothes.

Samizdata quote of the day

But in the post-war period, rights have been transformed from negative freedoms to positive goods for the individual, such as education and employment, and then to positive goods for groups, including the protection of identities. With each step there has been a move away from holding the authority of the state to account, towards empowering the state over goods which it is increasingly difficult to guarantee. The result is that the state has become more coercive in its attempts to deliver those goods.

Don Trubshaw

Elections have consequences – and so does arranging that they don’t

There’s a Snoopy cartoon that starts with Linus telling Violet he is running away from home. “I know a joke about running away from home”, says Violet. “A boy at a street crossing tells a friend he is running away from home. ‘Then why are you waiting here?’, she asks. ‘I’m not allowed to cross the street without permission.’, he explains.”

“That’s a riot”, replies Linus sourly, gazing down at the kerbstone on which he is standing.

Winning a referendum, electing a president – with hindsight, we can see these were not so much victories as winning the right to fight. They did not force the deep state to obey – they forced the deep state to fight. While some crudely expressed their entitlement (“The Electoral College should ignore the outcome” or “Just declare him insane”, and “Hold another referendum” or “It was only advisory”), more professional liars began a longer-term strategy to undo what was voted.

Two years later, we have reached stage two: as with Harvey Weinstein, everybody knows – and everybody knows the insiders always knew. In the US, there was no collusion, just a lot of cheating to pretend there was. In the UK, May and collaborators lied (quite a lot) to get the power to tell us we can run away from the EU just as soon as the EU gives us permission. In the US, the media’s collusion story is over. In the UK, all the papers are talking about who will succeed May. And all that means is, the deep state can be made to stand and fight.

– If you can frame a president, and the only price you pay for failing is that you didn’t succeed, then (to paraphrase the Brighton bomb terrorists) Trump has to be lucky every time; the deep state only has to be lucky once.

– If no vote is so solemn, so pledged to be decisive before and after by government and opposition, that its decision can’t be delayed forever, then votes don’t control what the deep state can do; the deep state controls what votes can do.

It’s been quite an education, watching it unfold. But they’ve had to be just a bit obvious to get here – so now they can be made to stand and fight.

“The night before the Nazi-Soviet pact was announced, I dreamed that the war had started. It was one of those dreams which … reveal to you the real state of your feelings. It taught me .. that I should be simply relieved when the long-dreaded war started.” (George Orwell, ‘My Country, Right or Left’)

In Britain, it begins with a fight for the soul of the Tory party. Some of us used to point out that our hate speech laws were not imposed on us by the EU against our rulers’ will – that May loves them, that Corbyn adores them, that Brexit was only ever going to be the start. Now we have been taught the worthlessness of establishment promises. We know there is no Brexit without a leader who wants it – and deselecting MPs who don’t. The struggle we hoped to start sometime has become the unavoidable fight of today – and we have some very angry allies.

In the US, it begins with a fight for consequences. The usual suspects intend to show that fitting up Trump has no consequences, but being un-PC has grave consequences. Trump can drain the swamp now or drown in it next time – and he has quite a lot of evidence.

The deep state, the establishment, the ‘experts’, the people who know best – they will fight. It’s our achievement (helped by their errors) that they will have to. I don’t know who will win, on either side of the pond, but

“for myself, I am an optimist; there does not seem much point in being anything else.” (Sir Winston Churchill)

What I do think is that politics tomorrow will not be like politics yesterday – that in a deep sense, what the deep state has done has already had consequences.

Samizdata quote of the day

However, despite all that, I find it difficult to have any sympathy for the man. Perhaps because he is such an incorrigible arsehole?

– Our temperate friend Longrider discussing Julian Assange.

It seems young adults are not as keen on socialism as some might fear

An interesting item on the Guido Fawkes blog:

The polling reveals that UK citizens overwhelmingly agree that “competition allows for better prices for consumers”, “competition between companies allows for more choice for consumers”, and “competition encourages innovation and economic growth” storming ahead of the other large EU countries Germany, France, and Italy in each of those categories.

A point worth making that goes way beyond current political fights is that it has become something of a cliche that young adults, in particular, are so annoyed at the lack of affordable housing, or worthless higher education qualifications + debt, that they are all hot for the 1970s tribute band routine of Corbyn in the UK or, for that matter, Bernie Sanders in the US. The media (and often the conservative bits of it) appears obsessed with running stories about the latest dumb statements of someone such as Alexandre Ocasio Cortez, the young Congresswoman in the US, or surveys about how young adults all want socialism. But from my admittedly impressionistic stance, I am not seeing an upsurge in enthusiasm for state control, rationing of resources, bureaucracy, etc. A poll conducted by Gallup in 2005 showed how lots of young US males wanted to start their own business. A more recent study from 2016 shows that a large number of Millennials, that generation which a Gen X-er like me likes to poke fun at, want to create their own firms.

It seems to me that any half-intelligent politician (that’s going to be a small population sample, ed.) should tap into this and stop pandering to the idea that the “young” all have a crush on Big Government. What I suspect is going on is that they dislike Bigness per se, not always coherently (Big Business is downright good if the bigness comes from superior performance rather than political favours), and want lots of choices and options in their lives. So smart policy, including around issues such as civil liberties, should play to that. It depresses me how our current political class seems so keen, for example, on regulating the internet and the like, because this is exactly the sort of issue that young adults, given their distrust not just of business but very big techs such as Facebook (even though they use it) get fired up about. One would think, therefore, that tapping this distrust makes sense.

After all, even if you have decidedly mixed views about a character such as Julian Assange, the Wikileaks man who was arrested in the UK yesterday, it is hard not to notice that a lot of people admired how he poked the establishment (well, at least that is what he claimed), in the eye. We are living at a time when there is a lot of dislike of established ways of doing things and this is something that thoughtful libertarians must embrace.

Related thoughts from the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Discussion point: have you kept the libertarian faith on freedom of movement?

The Independent reports, Let Us Vote: New campaign launched to give everyone living in UK the right to vote in elections

The “Let Us Vote” campaign, which has the backing of more than a dozen MPs and peers, is seeking new legislation to extend the voting franchise, which has not changed significantly since the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1969

It has been launched by campaign groups the3million, representing EU nationals in the UK, British in Europe, which represents UK citizens in the EU, and anti-Brexit group Another Europe is Possible. The campaign says it is strictly neutral on Brexit and party politics.

In an open letter published in The Independent, supporters including MPs, peers, and NGO leaders wrote: “The outcome of the next few weeks in politics could determine the course of our lives for decades to come.

“But many of the people who are most affected by the current situation – migrants living in the UK, and UK citizens living abroad – have never been offered the chance to have a stake in our democracy.

“Whatever our views on Brexit and party politics, we are united in the belief that it is fundamentally wrong that so many millions of people whose lives will be deeply affected by developments at Westminster are currently denied a vote.”

The letter was signed by Labour MPs Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Clive Lewis, David Lammy and Stephen Doughty, plus Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran.

The “Let Us Vote” campaign’s own website is here.

What was your first thought upon reading this proposal? What would it have been ten years ago?

My first thought was this was David Lammy’s way of ensuring he never again loses another referendum. (My second was, “Leave campaign: use this on C2DE voters.”) Ten years ago I might have said, “It’s a difficult question”. I do not think I was ever unambiguously in favour of complete open borders on libertarian grounds but I knew plenty of people who were and I was open to persuasion. It was seen as one of the questions that sorted the committed Libertarians from the dilettantes. That, I think, is where my instinctive casting of the question in religious terms came from.

My impression is that my loss of belief in free movement of people is shared by many. Is it shared by you? Or have you kept your faith strong? Have you converted to this belief?